Cognitive Deterioration Associated with an Expedition in an Extreme Desert Environment

Robert Pocaro

Mars Society Australia

--- Abstract - Audio - Profile ---

Abstract: Individuals in extreme environments may experience cognitive changes and these could influence their ability to make decisions that place them at increased risk of injury or death. The aim of this study was to measure the cognitive performance of a single well- prepared male as he completed a 17 desert expedition using a computer based cognitive test. The extent to which cognitive performance changed was determined by comprising performance to 8 age matched males who remained in their normal environment. The speed of psychomotor, attentional and executive functions decreased as the expedition progressed while the accuracy of performance was unaffected. While some of the impairments were large in magnitude all resolved as soon as the expedition was completed. The individual had insight into his failing cognitive performance. These data do show that cognitive performance can be measured repeatedly throughout an expedition in an extreme environment and that cognitive impairment may occur. However, further studies must be conducted to determine the cause of such impairment.

PROFILE: Rob Pocaro has spent most of his working career in the advertising and marketing industries. However, his lifelong dream was to experience Antarctica and in 2001 he made the decision to trek to the South Pole. At that point Rob weighed 92 kg, smoked 2 packets of cigarettes per day and drank too much. His GP called him a walking time bomb. In preparation for his trip he set about changing everything about himself. He now weighs 70kg and has never been fitter.

In 2001 if you had told Rob Porcaro that he would complete a 100k Oxfam trail walker run in 20 hours, trek across the Simpson Desert for 550km hauling a cart weighing in excess of 250kg or trek across the Simpson Desert via the Madigan Line for 566km and up and over more than 700 dunes he would have said you were mad. But this ordinary bloke has managed to achieve these things and each time he does, he realizes how much more he is capable of. Rob has learned to stretch his preconceived personal limits and has grown physically and mentally. Rob now believes that anything is possible if there is passion, commitment and focus. It's not about being the fastest or the best, it's about an ordinary bloke with a big, hairy audacious goal and about being able to get up and dust himself off every time he gets knocked down.

In between work, training and expeditions Rob spends time talking to young Australians and the corporate world about this core message – as Colonel Norman Vaughan, the last surviving member of Admiral Byrd’s 1927 South Pole expedition and the international patron of Rob’s forthcoming South Pole expedition says– ‘Dream big and dare to fail’.